Italian Court Rules Getty Museum Must Return a Prized Bronze

Posted December 4, 2018 2:49 p.m. EST

ROME — Italy’s highest court has ordered that a centerpiece of the Getty Museum’s art collection, a prized bronze sculpture more than 2,000 years old, should be returned to Italy in a ruling that could lead to a trans-Atlantic transfer or a diplomatic standoff.

The statue, known as the “Getty Bronze” and now on display at the museum in Los Angeles, was retrieved from Adriatic waters by Italian fishermen in 1964. After a decadelong legal battle, Italy’s Court of Cassation ruled Monday that the statue should be confiscated and brought back to Italy, rejecting the Getty’s appeal. The decision had not been published Tuesday but a message from a court official describing it was provided to The New York Times.

“It was a very, very long process, but we now hope that we will be able to have it in Italy as soon as possible,” said Lorenzo D’Ascia, a lawyer representing the Italian government.

Yet the fate of one of the finest original bronzes from the classical era, probably fashioned in ancient Greece and lost at sea after being stolen by the Romans, is still unclear. The Getty has long argued that the statue was probably created outside Italy and was discovered in international waters after thousands of years, so it is not an Italian object subject to repatriation.

Italian officials, who say the statue was actually found in Italian territorial waters, had said that if the country’s high court decided in their favor that they planned to ask the U.S. Justice Department to enforce the ruling by seizing the statue. That would be likely to lead to another court battle in the United States.

In response to news of the ruling, Lisa Lapin, vice president of communications for the Getty Trust, said in a statement Monday night, “We will continue to defend our legal right to the statue. The law and facts in this case do not warrant restitution to the Italian government of a statue that has been on public display in Los Angeles for nearly a half century.”

She added, “We believe any forfeiture order is contrary to American and international law.”

The “Victorious Youth,” a life-size athlete crowned with an olive wreath, was long thought to be the work of Lysippos, a famed Greek sculptor of the fourth century B.C., though recent scholarship has dated it to the second or third century B.C. The fishermen who dredged it from the sea realized the value of their discovery, brought it to shore and buried it in a cabbage field, awaiting the right buyer.

Italian officials have argued that the statue, which was sold several times after its discovery, was subsequently smuggled out of Italy illegally, without a required export license and hidden at various points in a bathtub and a convent. The Getty Trust, the museum’s foundation, purchased it from an antique dealer in Germany in 1977 for $3.95 million.

“At the very least, the museum should have been more prudent in their purchase,” D’Ascia said in a phone interview.

“They bought a statue lacking the export permit,” he said.

Under a 1939 Italian law, when antiquities and archaeological works are discovered in the country, the authorities must be notified and the artifacts are not allowed to leave Italy without an export license.

“We provided enough evidence,” said Silvia Cecchi, the prosecutor who has pursued the case for 10 years. “The sculptor was Greek, but the statue was culturally and administratively Italian when it sank.”

But over the long course of the legal fight, the Getty had prevailed in other lower court rulings. Italian authorities maintained that previous trials lacked crucial evidence on the statue’s origin that prosecutors were recently able to provide.

William Pearlstein, a partner at the New York-based art law firm Pearlstein McCullough & Lederman, which has frequently represented antiquities dealers in disputes with governments, said he thinks the Getty should file a suit in the United States, asserting its right to the statue.

“It would state the Getty’s claim for title and challenge the Italians to assert their superior title claim to the satisfaction of a U.S. court, which I don’t think they can do,” he said. “What they’ve done is basically submitted a bunch of inside baseball claims in Italian court.”

The view is very different in Fano, the seaside town on Italy’s east coast which the fishermen returned to with the statue after they found it more than 50 years ago. Generations there have fought for the statue, and now feel celebratory about its possible return.

“It’s pure joy for Italy, and for my town, we always felt the Lysippo belonged to us,” said Tristano Tonnini, a lawyer for the regional cultural association. The town has a reproduction of the bronze at its port entrance, and a restaurant and newspaper named after it.

“It was found near here, was kept here and we hope it will come back here,” he said. “It was finally recognized that the Lysippo is like the other 40 masterpieces that the museum already returned to Italy.”

Tonnini was referring to accords between the Italian government and foreign museums that have allowed Italy to welcome back many dozens of looted objects. The Getty Museum, under one of the agreements, has already returned 40 artifacts to Italy.

But both parties agreed to leave the bronze statue out of the deal while the court fight over it wound its way through the Italian legal system.

Nevertheless, in Fano, the emotional connection to the statue remains strong. “The bronze just belongs to our cultural heritage,” Tonnini said.